by Andrew Panebianco
It is the stated policy of this journal that we publish work by or regarding people born between 1973 and 1993. This is the span of years we’ve chosen to refer to as The Splinter Generation – a period or group or collection of voices whose experiences we wish to explore and chronicle.
If you’re reading this, you probably know that already.
So we’re operating on the notion that there’s some cohesion to be found within the guts of this age – some intrinsic sameness crafted by common experience. Sometimes I believe this. Other times I don’t.
I teach English lit to freshmen at a university in Philadelphia, and my students come in every possible variety. I teach students of every race and gender and sexual identity. I have good students, bad students, brilliant students, not-so-brilliant students. Individuals, all. But in spite of that individuality, there is still this one thing I’ve found that serves as the universal constant to which they all adhere. I’ve come to see it as a form of cultural currency – a universal language – a social Esperanto, if you will.
I speak, of course, of Family Guy.
Family Guy is the one thing that all of my students seem to know, believe and understand. The travails of the Griffin family are universally accepted to be the funniest events ever to come into existence, and so, as members of a television-saturated generation, the show for them becomes the spice of ordinary conversation. Family Guy is the wellspring of hundred and hundreds of well-intentioned impressions. It’s the community metaphor well. And they’ve all got buckets. They toss lines back and forth, interrupting each other’s reminiscences with sudden giggles and laughter. They already know the punchline, you see. Because they’ve seen every episode. Twice.
On one level I can understand this. Because like my students, I and others of my age (mid to late 20s) also have a social Esperanto. We have volumes of quotes and references at the ready. Only they don’t come from Family Guy. They come from The Simpsons. And despite my fervent love of that show, it history and the role it has played both in my life and my culture, I have to recognize that when it comes to my students, I’m speaking a dead language. “People still watch that?” they say, “I don’t get it.” Like I’m speaking Aramaic or something.
This, I think, is one of the most important distinctions between the middle splinters (20s) and the late splinters (teens) – they grew up in Quahog, Rhode Island, while we all hail from Springfield, Wherever. For them, Family Guy is the funniest thing on the planet. For me, it’s kinda meh. On some level I just don’t get it. It’s a bunch of references. A whole lot of bawdy, pop culture references tied together by the bickerings of a gay baby and an erudite dog. Funny sometimes, sure. But on par with The Simpsons? Hardly.
Who cares, right? It’s just a TV show. Well, yeah. I see your point. But I want to look closer. I want to know why I find one to be brilliant and the other to be terribly overrated. And I would like you to chime in and tell me what to think – because honestly, I’m not sure.
It leads me to a question though: What do such wide-ranging, culturally resonant shows like these do to our sense of humor as generation? Might it be molded by each show’s respective comic philosophy (which I think generally can be seen as irony and satire vs. randomness and taboo). And since one has begun to wither whereas the other continues to rise, might there be a separation in how we in this generation think in terms of humor?
I think The Simpsons taught me what funny is. And so my brain is too yellow to fully appreciate Family Guy. Maybe my students get bored with The Simpsons because it’s not… splintered… enough. Not enough reference – too demanding of an attention span – too linear. I don’t know.
I think of of this all the time when I consider our generation – when I consider this journal. If what’s funny to some of us isn’t what’s funny to the rest – how alike can we be? Am I a guy like the other guys in my generation? I don’t think I am. I don’t think I can be.
To quote the Gospel According to Homer: I’m a guy like me.